Tuesday, March 02, 2010

NI Council website performance = poor ... the results from Socitm's Better Connected 2010 report

Socitm logo

Socitm have published their Better Connected 2010 report looking at council websites across the UK. Only eleven councils (3%) across the UK came out with the maximum four stars. In general, Northern Ireland’s 26 councils didn’t fare well.

There are some extenuating circumstances. Some of the six specific topics that the report assessed and rated as important (jobs, library services, schools, family history, planning, rubbish collection) fall outside the remit of NI’s councils. So while rubbish collection is in scope, library services and schools are dealt with by the remnant Education & Library Boards and the relatively new Northern Ireland Library Authority.

However the thrust of the Socitm research remains valid.

  • assessing whether the council websites have the information that people are looking for (in terms of content, links elsewhere, being up-to-date)
  • allowing people to “transact business” with the council
  • offering the opportunity to influence council policies and decisions
  • usability and navigations
  • accessibility

Belfast City Council quickly put out a statement to trumpet their three star success, noting

“A total of 11 councils received four stars, while Belfast was among the 105 who received three stars, putting it in the top 25 per cent – a major achievement given the resources and budget of councils across the water.”

Belfast also noted some of the comment in the full report (which you have to pay for to see):

“Reviewers described Belfast as one of their favourites, saying it was `a really good all-round website` and `a joy to read`. It praised the plain English style, content, availability, homepage performance and use of social media.”

Well done to Belfast. I wonder will any of the other councils publish the comments made about their lesser-rated websites along with their proposals for improving how they serve local ratepayers?

Drum roll ... the full results for NI’s 26 councils from Socitm Insight. I’ve noted the areas which the specific areas and themes that the report highlighted as being good.

THREE STARS

  • Belfast City Council – jobs, rubbish collection, up-to-date, content newsworthiness, A-Z index, search, navigation, accessibility

TWO STARS

ONE STAR

It has got to be a wake up call for Northern Ireland's councils as they prepare to shuffle down from 26 to 11 larger council blocks if this element of the Reform of Public Administration goes ahead. In an age of technical improvement, shrinking budgets and a move to self-service, council processes have still a long way to go.

Update - You can use Pezholio's mashup to get a feel for the spread of council website performance across the UK.

18 comments:

Dave said...

As someone who has only recently starting working with Northern Irish government organisations, I have to say the standard of the websites - in particular the departments of the Northern Ireland Executive - is pretty appalling. Hardly any of them seem to render in Firefox properly and finding information on them is night on impossible!

Lee Munroe said...

Bit embarrassing for NI. I wonder does the problem lie with the councils, the web agencies or the process involved of a council partnering with a web agency/designer.

I know there are a lot of talented web designers and studios in NI but I also know councils have to tick a lot of boxes so maybe don't always end up with the 'best' team for the job.

Chris said...

I'm sure budget has a part to play, but most of these sites do pretty much the same job. Surely a good template could be made that could at least lift them to two stars? White background, good grid and the ability to change the crest and colour scheme on each one would do the trick! Maybe I'm oversimplifying it a bit, but besides the sheer nightmare of 'design by 26 committees', why not?

An added benefit would be a uniform UI throughout all the councils, so whether I'm on the Coleraine website or the Ballymoney one, it feels familiar.

Alan in Belfast said...

If RPA goes ahead with the shrinking of 26 councils down to 11, there is talk of having central services (legal, perhaps IT?) to support the councils.

Maybe that means that the council sites should be largely identikit, with council processes that are common across NI on the sites, and common information that everyone will ask - who is my council? what day is which bin collected? how can I ask about X, Y and Z?

Dawn Baird, Business Owner said...

Did we need a report to tell us this? The council websites have been a shambles for ages. It's sometimes impossible to find information on tenders. Worse still, trying to get to speak to someone about where tenders have disappeared without notice, is impossible too.

Andy Boal said...

Did the report say that Craigavon's website was a collection of rubbish or was it referring to information about refuse collecting?

From what you've said, and without looking properly, I get the feeling some of the councils don't deserve even one star.

Website Observer said...

This article leaves out one very important factor - how many of the Council websites are Socitim subscribers? - Belfast! Their website was not 'awarded' but 'rewarded' for paying their annula Socitim fee. Belfast don't even have the option to buy a bin online like most other Council websites do. I would seriously have to doubt the independence of these results.

Alan in Belfast said...

Website Observer - Not sure your allegation holds up. Belfast isn't the only local council to be a member of Socitm.

DB said...

The Fermanagh and Antrim council sites were implemeneted back in 2004 and havent dated that well to be honest.

Definitley could do with the refurb - but do the councils have budget for it?

Chris said...

Just playing devil's advocate, but how much of a priority is it for a council to have a good website? I've lived in Belfast for the past four years, yet I've never had any reason to go on the council website, and it's supposedly one of the good ones.

Of course, I may be the exception to the rule. Would be interesting to see the usage stats for these websites, and see how much priority and budget they're being given compared to other points of contact with the council.

Alan in Belfast said...

Chris - it's a fair question.

Having moved to Lisburn, I was faced with a rainbow collection of bins and wanted to find out which one gets collected when.

I wondered whether they did composting. Whether the paper bins took stapled stuff. (The kind of things that vary across districts.)

Coming back to Lisburn after a six or seven year break, I wondered what the local council was doing? Who my local councillors were? What kind of way they were spending the rates.

And with a large fountain in the River Lagan, what else is happening in the Island Centre that as a family we might be interested in.

Chris said...

I guess it's a case of 'if you build it, they will come'. Perhaps if they were better designed in the first place they would be a useful resource that people would use more.

kobik said...

Better a late comment on a nice insight such as this than none at all I guess. The performance management implications associated with local government services had hitherto escaped my random rants. Of course rationalisation of resources across public services means that even more service utilisation will have to be pushed online to reduce costs. It is essential therefore that local government bodies of all types deliver optimal online customer experiences. Perhaps I can shed further light on the significance of this. CA recently worked with leading customer experience and usability consultants, Foviance, and Glasgow Caledonian University, to conducted a unique neurological experiment into the reactions and behaviour of consumers as they interacted with poorly performing websites. This experiment and the research that preceded it provide stark empirical evidence of the negative effects of a phenomenon which we have called web stress. Web stress clearly has a negative impact on online service consumption – which is a real problem for local government service provision. Find out more at http://www.ca.com/Files/SupportingPieces/final_webstress_survey_report_229296.pdf

Paul Beattie said...

Alan, I am REALLY late to this, but am keeping an eye for next year. I work in Limavady (yes I may get fired for this) and we've put a lot of work into the website.

Yes, it could do with a spruce-up, but we do our best to ensure that the info is up-to-date.

One way of doing this - and it doesn't always work - is that we have opened up updating privileges to everyone from management to admin. It helps. A lot of Councils wouldn't even countenance such a move. Though why, I don't understand. In the 2/3 years we've had this system, it hasn't been abused once. And it gives a sense of ownership to the staff.

I notice we got one star from the survey. I just wanted to make a few quick comments. We DO monitor our website's google stats as best we can. And we did go for a very different navigation system than most councils would go for. Perhaps that's a bad thing - perhaps it does no harm to do things a bit differently. But it SHOULD in theory mean that people should be able to find *most* info within 2-3 clicks.

The main areas which people searched for, stopped and read were:
1. tourism - average stay around 3-4 minutes - now, that's not bad in a 10-30 second stay world.
2. jobs - obviously we have a high unemployment rate in Limavady; not a long stay there, as jobs don't come up that often
3. economic development, and subsections thereof - we keep a lot of info there, and constantly drive people to it from our advertising, eZines, and other communication

Now, I am not saying this survey is wrong in its outlook or what it wants to do, and I will be the first to admit we need to look at some of the navigation and information we store.

But while those sections above are what people are actually coming to us for, that's what we'll concentrate on. Bins, council minutes and the "usual suspects" were way down the list of what attracted most traffic. Perhaps people still pick up the phone...?

I just can't help but think that this survey is just a little too generic?

Alan in Belfast said...

Paul - better late than never. I imagine that with the volume of sites to get through, the assessment may be quite cursory at times.

And there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat. Having had a quick look around the Limavady Borough Council website, I quite like the role-based approach that you (and others) have taken hat starts with the kind of reason that recognises the main reasons someone might want to come to a council website and gives those most prominence.

RPA was going to be a great opportunity to improve council websites across NI ... doesn’t look that opportunity will be available now.

However, some of the information on the Limavady site is quite disjointed. Click on the prominent FOI link http://www.limavady.gov.uk/freedom-of-information/ in the top navigation bar, and you get a form. However, you need to look under FAQs to find four background Q&As about FOI, and you need to look under Working -> Publications to find the Publication Scheme. By the way, doesn’t look like Limavady Council adopted the ICO’s Model Publication Scheme by the 1 January 2009 deadline!

The links to http://www.limavady.gov.uk/FAQs/4/ and http://www.limavady.gov.uk/working/publications/11/ should really be added to the top of the FOI comment form!

Given the different respobsibilities that councils have in NI (compared to England, Scotland, Wales), perhaps Socitm needs to do something specific for NI ... and run a day-long conference to discuss the different approaches and allow best practice to be shared. Or maybe that's the job of NILGA!

Alan in Belfast said...

Should have added - thanks for the comment!

Paul Beattie said...

No problem, Alan - I will have a look at the FOI stuff this week and get it fixed (and may I be the first to confess, I haven't a clue about the publication scheme - I have to defer to one who knows on that...)

Also, the "working" section is mine - and I don't want "publications" in it. :-)

NILGA, ye say...? Who's NILGA and what do they do...??

;-)

Finally, one last thing that will get me censured, but not fired - some of the Council websites ARE absolutely shocking - I won't say which - that WOULD get me fired.

But then so are some of the central government ones. And anything attached to the voluntary sector, especially community groups. The universities here aren't much better. The Environment Agency *was* one I was going to mention, but I notice just this VERY day it has been spruced up. Must have a gleek. Yes, we here in NI really, really need to up our game in terms of public information across the board.

Anyway...toodle-pip. Post next year's results if you get a chance and remember!

Paul

Alan in Belfast said...

I did email NILGA last week and asked if they've ever done anything about website best practice in local government, but so far, no reply.